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USF study to help U.S. military feed soldiers in the Middle East

Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 01:01

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Due to prolonged military involvement in the Middle East, the U.S. army has granted USF researchers $6.7 million for a five-year long study to develop technology to improve the shelf life of military rations.

This technology will notify military officials when rations expire and if they can survive the environment of their shipping destination. This will result in the military being able to make informed decisions as to when and where food should be shipped.

The current rations distributed to U.S. troops, known as First Strike Rations (FSR) and Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), are designed to have an ideal shelf life of two to three years if kept at a temperatures of 80 degrees. However, Cecilia Nunes, a USF professor of molecular biology and microbiology, said the poor conditions in the Middle East directly cost the U.S. military millions of dollars in spoiled rations.

“When MREs are exposed to the temperatures in hot desert areas, their shelf life is significantly reduced to a few weeks,” she said.

USF researchers have developed a method to track the shelf life of MREs by developing technology that monitors the environmental conditions around the rations.

The temperature monitoring system relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, said Ismail Uysal, a USF professor of electrical engineering and postdoctoral associate of the initial research.

“We have a program developed in which the information from the wireless trackers from the MREs is stored,” he said. 

Uysal said the RFID technology allows effective decision-making in terms of what food should be shipped out and at what time. This will also ensure that the shelf life of foods is estimated more accurately, hence reducing food-related sickness and decrease the amount of food wasted, said Nunes.

Shelf life is predicted by examining information gathered by the storage protocol that was designed USF researchers. 

Properties such as change in chemical composition, color and appearance were studied, she said. Food loses much of its nutritional value for the troops when spoiled due to poor conditions. 

Some of the tested rations included chipotle bread, mango-peach applesauce, raisin trail mix, beef ravioli, pork sausage and gravy, peanut butter and jalapeno cheese spread.

“When exposed to hot temperatures, these selected items are most likely to go bad in a short time, and were the target of our investigation,” Nunes said.

A national study from August 2012 by the National Resource Defense Council discovered that more than 40 percent of all food manufactured in the U.S. is wasted yearly.

Uysal hopes that the current tools for determining shelf life of military rations can be adapted to a larger commercial scale.

Food companies can benefit from the technology too, Uysal said. A grocery store would retain product and therefore increase profit.

“We would like to see the big retail stores (such as Publix and Wal-Mart) take interest in this technology to efficiently manage their supplies and food distribution,” he said.

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